In the age of social media, it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of unrealistic beauty standards, but it’s nice to see that being balanced out with occasional posts that promote body positivity. However, the sad reality is that there is underrepresentation even in body positivity because it usually focuses on the aspect of weight and figure even though that’s not always the problem. I’m not saying that weight issues are no longer relevant because there are a lot of people who still struggle to accept their own body type (myself included). I’m just saying there are many other facets to body dysmorphia other than weight which are not being talked about enough. One of the primary examples of this is the Filipinos’ obsession with pale skin.
I’ve never had this problem myself given the fact that I’m a Chinoy who was born with a pale complexion, but I’ve observed how badly some of my friends and acquaintances wanted pale skin. The earliest memory I recall happened when I was a child. I had a neighbor, who was around my age, and we liked to play together on the roads of our subdivision. She didn’t exactly care about her skin tone, but her mother definitely did, so her playtime was only limited to one hour to keep her skin from getting dark. My next memory happened when I was a teenager. I was on vacation with my family in Taiwan, and since we were on a group tour, we were traveling with other Filipinos as well. I remember getting constantly pestered by my tourmates, as they kept asking me what products I use to keep my skin so pale. They didn’t believe me when I told them I only used moisturizer.
The obsession with skin color isn’t only seen in Filipinos, but in Chinoys as well. Most Chinoys are born with fair skin, but it seems like their worst fear is turning a shade darker. I had a classmate who was already so pale but was still so paranoid about turning dark, that she would lather her skin with sunblock everytime she steps out of our school gates to buy food. And there were also times when my friends asked to be excluded from pictures because their skin had turned bronze after a long vacation, and they didn’t think they looked good. This is proof that our obsession with skin tone is borderline toxic already, but why does this mentality continue to persist in the so-called age of body positivity and self acceptance? Well, there are three factors that contributed to that.
The first factor is colonialism, as the Spaniards were the proponents of the idea that skin color is associated with social class. They made Filipinos believe that their skin tone was inferior to the Spaniards because dark skin suggested that a person was so poor that they had to work under the sun all day, while light skin was an indicator of wealth because it meant that a person could afford to live a luxurious life indoors. This meant that dark-skinned citizens (who were usually pure-blooded Filipinos) were relegated to the lower classes of society, while the light-skinned citizens (who were mestizos) joined the ranks of the Spanish high class. The Chinese also had a similar notion of equating white skin to elegance and beauty, and the immigrants likely passed it down to Filipinos and Chinoys as well. During this time, it’s understandable for pale skin to be desirable, but it’s already been more than a hundred years since the Philippines became independent from Spain, and the idea that skin tone is related to social class should have become obsolete, so why do Filipinos still want pale skin? This leads us to the next factor, which is cultural hegemony.
Cultural hegemony is defined as the domination of a “ruling class” that’s maintained through cultural or ideological means, and it usually allows powerful countries to influence the values, beliefs and norms of other countries through social institutions. A primary example is how America maintains its influence over other countries through the domination of media. When you’re regularly exposed to American movies and shows, you’re no longer only watching for entertainment. You’re also being conditioned to want their products and their lifestyle, and there are also times when you unconsciously find yourself wanting to look like them. That, coupled with the lack of diversity makes it easy for the typical Caucasian appearance to become the new standard of beauty. But despite the fact that there is more diversity in Western media nowadays, the “token Asian characters” are usually depicted as light-skinned. It’s evident that American cultural hegemony plays a role in the Filipino’s desire for fair skin, as the prevalence of their media enforces the idea that their culture is the norm and that their appearance is what everyone should be striving for.
Some would argue that American media is no longer as dominant as before, and that’s true given the fact that the rise of K-Pop and K-Drama culture has shifted people’s preferences towards Asian media. However, that’s still no better for the Filipinos because Korean actors, actresses and idols are all fair-skinned. This creates a new wave of skin tone insecurity among Filipinos, as they tend to equate beauty with the Korean appearance. As a result, people are willing to go through lengths to copy their Korean idols, whether it’s using Korean skincare products or dyeing their hair. There’s nothing wrong with this since I use Korean skincare products too and thought of dyeing my hair, but the problem is, there are some people who do it to look less their own race and more Korean. However, skin tone obsession shouldn’t always be blamed on cultural hegemony because the lack of local representation is also a factor.
When you watch local shows or movies, you would notice that the lead actors are usually fair-skinned. There are some exceptions of course, but most of the time, dark-skinned or kayumanggi actors only play supporting roles. There are also cases where celebrities started out as kayumanggi but undergo glutathione treatments once they become famous. The Miss Universe pageant is another evidence of the Filipinos preference for foreign beauty standards, as the representatives for the Philippines are usually mixed-race. Even the recent rise of P-Pop or Pinoy Pop isn’t giving Filipinos much representation, as the girl group and boy group members are so clearly emulating the Korean appearance. On top of that, cosmetics companies are aggressively advertising their skin-whitening products, which makes Filipinos feel like having fair skin is a necessity.
There are a lot of factors that come into play when it comes to the Filipinos’ desire for pale skin. It’s rooted in colonialism, which leaves lasting influences given the fact that the Spaniards occupied the Philippines for over three hundred years. But we should learn to recognize that this type of mindset is unhealthy and work our way to undo it rather than encourage it by treating foreign beauty standards as the norm and widely representing it in local media.